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Over 20 per cent of the working age population would like to use technology to turn their ideas into reality but feel unconfident or ‘held back’ and need greater support if they’re to realise their potential, according to a recently commissioned survey for the independent RSA think-tank.

Published to coincide with the launch of The new digital learning age: How can we enable social mobility through technology, the Populus poll of 2000 adults on what the RSA calls the ‘Power to Create’ – people’s freedom and capacity to turn their ideas into reality – revealed that only 11 per cent of the population are ‘confident creatives’ – people who feel at ease in a rapidly changing technology environment.

Thirty per cent of people were identified as 'safety firsters' - who tend to use the internet for everyday information and entertainment, but could be vulnerable to the pace of technological change, including the potential for large sections of the workforce to become obsolete on the basis of their current skills.

Today’s report, written with sponsorship from Google, examines to what extent the use of digital technologies can help encourage greater social mobility, arguing that technology is ‘not a force of nature’ – the degree to which the benefits of technological change are distributed (and costs mitigated) depends on collective institution building and adaptive public policy.

The report concluded that the Government Digital Service could do much more to support the UK’s growing ‘spontaneous learning economy’ – in particular ensuring that online peer-to-peer learning opportunities are accessible to as many people as possible.

The RSA also suggested that the government considers replicating Chicago’s ground-breaking ‘city of learning’ initiative, through which people gain new skills via a citywide network of low-cost learning opportunities at parks, museums, libraries, and other local institutions as well as opportunities to learn online.

Established in 2013 by Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emmanuel, the project has since spread to other US cities and has already encouraged hundreds of thousands of people take part in local learning opportunities, with participants earning digital badges for the new knowledge and skills they acquired.

The RSA concluded that public policy in recent years has focussed on the economic opportunities provided by new technology, the benefits to the functioning of government, and the closure of the ‘digital divide’. There is now a need to add a stronger social dimension to the public policy in this arena – with the government making sure the benefits of technological change are democratically distributed – otherwise known as inclusive social mobility.

Commenting on the report, RSA Director of Anthony Painter said:

“Many people understandably have a very positive view of technology. It’s rightly seen as an engine of economic growth and wider organisational efficiency – whether this is through the provision of high productivity, high growth sectors or the more effective distribution of government services. However, we also know that with surges in innovation and creative destruction the benefits are not evenly spread – there are definite winners and losers. How opportunities and risks are spread, history shows, is significantly determined by how we respond to skills-based technological change and how people are able to adapt as a consequence.

Our report argues that to a certain degree, we can shape the impacts of technology to ensure that its benefits are spread democratically. The recommendations in our report suggest building on the UK’s growing spontaneous learning economy. Fragmented learning settings, from school and beyond, to online learning communities and workplaces, could be brought together in a way that better meets the frustrated ambitions of many. New technology blended with adaptive public policy is one of the means – albeit complex and uncertain and by no means the only set of changes that will be necessary - of securing the type of social change that a socially inclusive, upwardly mobile nation needs.”

According to a Populus poll, commissioned by the RSA of over 2000 UK adults, there is a great deal of trust and support for the role of technology in our society. However, there are three main groups who face contrasting opportunities and outcomes from the spread of new technology:

  • The confident creatives who are adept at using new technology to develop their knowledge, creativity and social capital. They are confident in a rapidly changing technology environment.

  • The ‘held back’ not only see the benefits of new technology but they are using it to learn. They are ambitious and seek the chance to turn their ideas and hopes into realities and they are trying to work out how. However, they feel that they need more support, a greater level of learning and more confidence to make their hopes a reality. With some support they might just get there but as it stands they feel a sense of frustrated ambition.

  • Finally, there are ‘safety firsters’. This group is least engaged with new technology and the internet. It’s not that that aren’t connected; it’s just that they see it less a part of their lives than the other two groups. They are not particularly satisfied with things but they do not see the world as particularly stacked against them as the ‘held back’ do. Without realising it, they may be missing out on opportunities to learn, progress and connect and consequently, this may pose greater risks as the economy changes. 

The report concluded that whilst there are considerable benefits for many, there are also losses and risks for others, include changes to the labour market that can make certain roles and work obsolete whilst downgrading the pay of others.

The RSA argued that public policy needs to widen its lens to focus on the interventions that will help the ‘held back’ realise their creative ambitions and help to ensure that ‘safety firsters’ are supported as technology spreads. These interventions begin early-on in life but must be continued throughout an individual’s working life.

The RSA believes that everyone should have the confidence and resources to turn their ideas and aspirations into reality. We call this the Power to Create, and it helps guide our call for a more inclusive technological revolution. There are three main policy changes that the report proposes:

  • A new approach to learning through and with new technology in schools. We advocate new ways of teachers working together to apply knowledge of what is effective in the use of digital technology in schools and being supported in that endeavor.

  • Greater frequency, quality and range of contact with employers for students. This will be supported throughout the education system through improving careers networks developed in schools and beyond.

  • A new ‘city of learning’ initiative based on similar approaches in the US to expand formal skills and learning. This approach is led by local leaders, employers, informal learning networks and institutions and increases skills-acquisition through peer-to-peer as well as institutional accreditation. It is based on ‘open badges’ technology where an individuals is able to demonstrate new learning and skills as they progress.

Inclusive social mobility seeks to improve the life chances of all from a young age in education, in work and in life; narrowing the gap in pupil attainment and broader life outcomes between those from disadvantaged backgrounds and their more affluent peers and ensuring everyone has access to the power, resources and opportunity for advancement.

Notes to editors

  1. For more information contact RSA Head of Media & Public Affairs Luke Robinson on 020 7451 6893 or 07799 737 970 or


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